Reporter’s Notebook: Freedom and the law

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What is to be done, Muslims? I myself do not know.
I am neither Christian nor Jew, neither Magian nor Muslim.
I am not from east or west, not from land or sea
I am not of earth, not of water, not of air, not of fire…
My place is placeless, my trace is traceless
No body, no soul, I am from the soul of souls – Rumi

This morning I had a rather combative interview with a woman journalism teacher
who blamed journalists for many of the problems they have with the Iranian
government – accusing them of exaggeration and distortion and being only
in writing "bad news" instead of what she called "constructive
criticism." She told me it was the government’s job to hold journalists
accountable. I told her it seemed things should work the other way around
regarding the relationship between government and the press and that citizens,
not people in power, should be able to hold journalists accountable.

I held up a copy of an English language Iran daily full of critical stories
about the U.S. culled from wire services and major American newspapers and
said it seemed ironic that Iran’s papers could take advantage of the
freedom of the press in other countries to publish these stories, while it
appeared they enjoyed no such freedoms in covering news in Iran. She suggested
that I’d come to the interview with preconceptions about press freedoms
in Iran. I told her it was impossible not to have some preconceived notions,
but that I was prepared to abandon them in the face of new information. As
we concluded, she invited me to speak to her journalism class, which I won’t
have time to do.

I went from this interview to one with Ms. Robabeh Rafeei. When I met Ms.
Rafeei, my heart fell. Here was a small woman in her 70s, about 5 feet tall,
wearing the very conservative chador with the thing that is cinched under her
chin to hide even her neck (I think it’s called a maghnaeh). I prepared
myself for an encounter similar to the one I’d had with the journalism
teacher, where, in the interest of solidarity with the Islamic Republic, no
quarter is given. She asked to see my press card and my letter from the government
confirming the identity of my official translator. Inspection of these credentials
is something I’ve encountered with conservatives I’ve talked with.

Ms. Rafeei began with a very long biographical sketch. She is now an official
with the Iranian Red Crescent Society (Iran’s Red Cross), but until two
years ago she served in the administration of moderate Iranian President Mohammad
Khatami. Over her long political life she has devoted herself to women’s
issues. Her husband died in 1981, killed (martyred, the Iranians will say)
in a bomb blast that took the lives of a number of key officials of the then
new Islamic government. She comes from a very religious family and received
her college degree when she was 44.

What followed for the next 90 minutes was a fascinating discussion about the
conflict between Islam and modernity. She explained that when she was young
during the Shah’s time women had few roles outside of the home. They
weren’t even permitted to drive. She said progress takes time and that
there has been much progress for women in Iran over her lifetime. Ms. Rafeei
credited the Islamic Repubic’s founder, Ayotollah Khomeini, with encouraging
women to play an active role in society. So far she seemed to be hewing a conservative

Then she explained that in today’s world changes come every second,
much faster than in the past. She said that Iran is struggling to catch up
with these changes and that Islamic laws regarding women, which long pre-date
the revolution in Iran, have failed to do so in some respects – that after
more than 25 years, some of these laws haven’t been updated. "Mixing
modern developments with Islamic law has created some problems," she
said. "I am for Islamic laws because they are divinely inspired," she
added, "but they need to be adapted."

She gave me a simple example: It used to be in Iran that everyone lived in
houses. When women went from one house to the other, they had to wear the hejab
(Islamic dress), which is the proper thing to do for a Muslim woman who goes
out in public. Now, however, people live in apartments. To visit her daughter,
who lives in the apartment next door to hers, she has to wear the chador simply
to walk down the hallway. She said this is an unnecessary inconvenience, since
she is not really going out in public, but Islamic law requires her to do so.
In this case, she said, the law needs to be updated.

I asked her if she was talking about "itjtihad", the idea of reinterpreting
Islamic law to accommodate changes in society and attitudes. (For Sunni Muslims
the "doors of itjtihad" are considered closed…as of many
centuries ago. For Shia Muslims, like the vast majority of Iran’s population,
the doors are still thought to be open). She said it’s not just the responsibility
of the clergy to make these changes, but the people – suggesting that
there are many outdated cultural attitudes that will change very slowly. There
has been slow change, she argued, even in the realm of women’s Islamic
dress. At one time the full chador (tent) was thought of as the only appropriate
way to dress. She fingered her chador. "I wear this because I feel comfortable
with it – I’ve been wearing it for a very long time. But sometimes
I simply wear a scarf. " She went on, "when I look at old films
from Europe, I see women used to dress in a funny fashion, very covered up.
Nobody asked why. Now they dress very differently. It took time just like it
will take time for us." I asked her if no matter how much time passed
there would always be restrictions to how a woman could dress in Iran.

"Whoever accepts Islam will not see this way of dressing as a restriction," Ms.
Rafeei said, "Whoever doesn’t accept Islam should be free to dress
as they wish. I believe that you should not force anyone to wear the hejab."

"Are you saying that if a woman in Iran decides that she doesn’t
want to wear the hejab she should be permitted to do so?" I asked.

"Requiring the hejab is the law in Iran." She said. "But
I don’t agree with it."

It’s one thing coming from a young person you talk to anonymously on
the street, it’s another, more remarkable thing, for it to come as an
attributable quote from a woman of deep faith, trying to find a way to reconcile
her religion with a changing Iran.

A note: The hejab is a convenient reference point for talking about women’s
issues in Iran. But it’s really way down the list of those issues that
many women consider important. Marriage and divorce laws, inheritance laws,
the value of a woman’s life compared to a man in terms of blood money
paid to the court by a person responsible for a woman’s death, not to
mention well entrenched cultural attitudes toward women: these are all weightier

For now,


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